Tuesday, November 27, 2012

First Year Turkey Processing

The business of processing chickens is routine around here. A serious chore to be done respectfully, but often and with a familiarity similar to many of the other farm tasks.

But turkeys, they are no small feat. With a live weight around 25-40lbs, and huge wings capable of giving a black eye (no really, that happened) , it's a much bigger proposition to turn fowl to food. Our small set up does not have the equipment capacity to process turkeys, even the scalding pot we use to loosen feathers can only fit 1/3 of the smaller birds.

So on last Monday, the big trailer owned by a place with the right equipment showed up to herd our flock of 60 in for their final trip. As a general rule the turkeys followed us around the farm when they has escaped their pen, cheerfully and relentlessly requesting additional rations despite being fed at least twice a day . We don't leave feed out all the time because we want the birds to eat pasture and bugs, rather than hoarding corn and not moving around. But when that trailer backed up not a single bird would respond to my requests to come along. Maybe they knew, but more likely the trailer looked mighty strange and like an open mouthed predator. Slowly and calmly we adjusted the position of the trailer and worked the birds in with a little grain coaxing and slammed the door.

I won't lie--it was a mix of things watching them pull away, the turkeys character added a real vibrancy to the farm. But their care was also exhausting and relentless- and we love to eat turkey. I had butterflies at the thought of sharing them with customers and friends. I barely slept overnight, worrying about their size. Being our first year with these guys, judging their weights was extra tricky, and I wanted to be sure we filled orders as close as possible.

It was ok that I slept on needles though, the alarm went off at 3:30 the next morning. We bundled up and took care of the residents still on farm. Kim's sister Deborah was still trying to catch a few more moments of rest upstairs, she would be joining us for the day of work.

By 4:30 we were all headed over to the processor, with coolers and freezer bags and labels packed into a borrowed van and our tiny prius.

There were some hiccups getting started, and we didn't really get moving with the birds until 6:30. Kim and I were sweating the time, we needed to be back on farm with 60 processed birds by 1pm when pick ups started, and in the van by 3:00 with our full delivery to get to Albany. But we had to stay focused on the task.

I worked in the dispatch area first, gently catching each bird from their holding pen and steadying them for the man with a knife. He commented how calm our birds were, they were so used to being handled they barely fussed when being picked up. Having worked with this crew before, I was at ease knowing just how fast they really were, and how skillful. My arms were a little sore from helping a fellow farmer process 170 birds a few days earlier, and my hands were so beaten you could no longer see my knuckles. That's sayin something since I hand plowed 2 acres with less pain.

Once the birds hit the scalder and the plucker they were sent to the next room, where Kim and Deborah worked with the crew to remove organs, clean remaining feathers, take off necks and prep the birds for packaging. It's kind of like an assembly line, everyone moving quickly to get the birds cooled down and safely clean in the right amount of time.

When the first batch of 30 was chilling in huge vats of ice water, and we had to stop to reset all the equipment. I switched over to packaging, the birds came out of the chill tanks to get the final cleaning, and once over. A pack of giblets was set inside each once, then we vacuum sealed them and set them in coolers outside to be weighed and labeled. Despite the late start, everyone picked up their pace and we had birds packed in cooler bags with ice and name tags.

While the guys took a quick coffee and donut break, the girls and I started matching turkeys to orders. The turkeys were gorgeous and we received great compliments from the processing team which made us swell up with pride. Some did dress a little lighter then we expected, but were remarkably healthy.

Soon it was time for the second batch and it wasn't long before they were chilling too. It was getting late, everyone pitching in to keep up a fever pace. Then, of course our scale broke. We had to move all 60 turkeys up to a spare scale the place owned, setting us back at least a half an hour. While I helped scrub walls and haul out guts and feathers, Kim and Deborah frantically worked to keep the birds cool and get correct weights/labels. Remarkably, we managed to speed out by 12:30 and race back to the farm.

I made a quick stop on the way home to drop off a 15lb donated bird, while KIm stopped for additional ice. We met back on the farm and set to sorting the birds ito on-farm pick ups, Albany delivery and staying behind or extras. Then we loaded the van with all if the other products for delivery, kale, carrots, cranberry sauce, potatoes etc.

The first customers arrived about 2, we took turns handling the transactions while eating quick sandwiches and getting much needed showers. The day was only half way through. Every customer was so excited to receive their turkey though, with our brand new logo labels that I had a good strong burst of energy.

By some kind of miracle, we all got on the road in time, 6 turkeys already picked up on farm successfully. Another 6 would be picked up Wednesday and both fridges were bursting at the seams with turkey.


We made it to All Good and it was only moments before we were loading huge orders into chipper customer's cars. Deborah had never before processed poultry and today had been a trail by necessity. But even she was so proud and happy when we handed months of work to each person. It really does make it worth it when you have people who are delighted to get the food you've poured your entire body in to. The aches fade, and you're just left with the knowledge that it means something.

Before long the van was empty, and after a quick delivery to a member out of town, we were back on the road. A friend was meeting us in near-by Troy for a beer, dinner and the final turkey hand off.

Wearily, the day finally catching up and the adrenaline wearing off, we three poured ourselves into the restaurant booth. I can't say we were much good company for the friend we were meeting, it was 7:30 and we were ravenous. By 9 we were on the road and Kim heroically drove our zombie selves back to Copake.

The sight of the farm was so welcome, and we barely made it to 10:15 before our heavy lids snapped shut.

It was an intense, busy, taxing and wonderful day. We did it--with some good help. The taste of those turkeys was beyond our expectations. They were raised and processed with care, and sold to people who prepared them with the same care. That, feels like a job well done.

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